Wednesday, May 29, 2024

70 Years Ago: Dial M For Murder (1954)

Director Alfred Hitchcock is up to his trademark diabolical tricks in Dial M For Murder (1954), a restless, yet highly-focused adaptation of Frederick Knott's hit stage play. The movie shares something in common with Rope (1948) in that the action is confined primarily to one claustrophobic location: an apartment suite in London.

As in Knott's original work, Hitchcock's film follows anti-hero Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) as he plots to murder his beautiful wife, Margot (Grace Kelly). Although the charming, erudite Wendice hardly seems perturbed -- let alone enraged -- with his wife over the moral trespass he discovered (an extra-marital affair), he nonetheless commissions (or rather, blackmails...) a shady college acquaintance, Swann (Anthony Dawson) into performing the terrible deed. The end game: Tony wants the money in Margot's will.

Wendice recruits Swann, I might add, by applying inescapable, Aristotelian logic. And his entire attitude with Swann is unswervingly dispassionate, but firm. He lets the facts speak for him, in other words. Wendice is thus revealed to be an exceedingly clever tactician, one with a clockwork mind and total understanding of all angles of the crime. He puts the screws of manipulation to Swann with a relentlessness - and charm - that is shocking, yet also strangely fun.

Watching the scene involving Wendice's manipulation of Swann, you will find yourself absolutely entranced by the writing, not to mention the performances. The scene misses nothing -- leaving no stone unturned -- and the dialogue and delivery are unerringly sharp. And when the film arrives at the specifics of the murder plot, Hitchcock cuts to and then remains with a high angle shot for an uncomfortably long duration. This selection of camera angles boasts two primary meanings. First, it distances us, in a sense, from the two men plotting evil. Secondly, the high angle (always a cinematic indicator of doom or entrapment), indicates that this plan will be the undoing for both men. Ultimately, that is indeed the case.

e lovely Margot, it turns out, was unfaithful to Tony with an American crime writer named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and the real motive behind the murder, I suggest is not merely the money in the will, but the fact that Margot is -- literally -- a different woman with Mark than she is with Tony. And yes, I mean that in the Biblical sense. With Tony, Margot is demure, virginal, (and to establish this, Hitchcock has her dress primarily in white).

By contrast, In the clutches of passion with Mark, Margot is more overtly sexual and passionate, a personality change made clear by her decision to adorn a fiery red dress. I get the feeling that Tony is murderous not so much because his wife cheated, but because Mark brings out the lustful, sexual side of Margot. Tony is intellectual, cunning, but Mark is macho and hot blooded. He can't stand that Margot would gravitate to Tony.

On the night of the planned murder, Tony has arranged the perfect alibi. He's going to be with Mark (yes, Margot's lover!) at a stag party, while Swann -- using Margot's front door key -- sneaks into the apartment and strangles her with a stocking. Tony telephones at the very moment of Swann's ambush (hence the "dial M" aspect of the title), and hears the vicious scuffle. But Swann bungles the attack, and Margot manages to stab her attacker in the back with a very sharp pair of scissors. In a terrific (and macabre) moment, Swann lands on the floor, back first, and the scissors - pressured by the floor - push deeply into his back, all the way up to the hilt.

And I must say, this is the moment in which Dial M For Murder goes from being an involving thriller to an experience you can't take your eyes off of.

Realizing that his plan has gone horribly awry, Tony -- using that unnatural calm and icy intellect -- begins to adjust to the situation on the fly. When he realizes Swann has failed in murder, Tony switches strategy and sets up Margot as Swann's murderer. She is arrested by Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) and charged with murder. Margot goes on trial (in a frugal but expressionistic sequence), is found guilty, and is promptly slated for execution.

The final scenes of the film heap irony upon irony, and Dial M For Murder successfully balances one cunning mind (Tony's) against another (Inspector Hubbard). On the former front, there's a grin-inducing scene in which Mark goes to Tony and -- desperate to save Margot from execution -- begs him to confess to Swann's murder. Mark -- the crime writer -- has even concocted a crazy story about how and why Tony would have killed Swann. What's amusing is that Mark has creatively (and with no inside knowledge) guessed correctly about almost everything. It's like a game of chess, and you sit on the edge of your seat waiting to see how and when the worm will finally turn, and Tony will be exposed.

Oddly, and perhaps counterintuitively, Milland plays the character in Dial M For Murder that we most easily sympathize with. He's a murderer, a cold fish and a cad, and yet somehow we simultaneously want him to get caught and get away with the perfect crime. Milland is ideal in this part, his eyes constantly processing -- not unlike a computer -- every new development, assimilating it, and taking it in stride. Even when he is exposed at the end, Tony seems oddly jolly and charismatic.

I don't believe that Dial M For Murder evidences the moral depth and philosophical heft of a Hitchcock film like Rope. Nor does it shatter the rules of cinematic decorum like Psycho. Nor have I pinpointed a deep and meaningful sub-text here, as is most assuredly present in a film such as The Birds (which had the attacking birds carrying out the subconscious, murderous desires of a particular character). Considering this, Dial M For Murder feels a tad lighter than some Hitchcock efforts. 

Yet by the same token, Dial M may also play as more widely accessible. Make no mistake: this is a brilliantly-written, effectively shot, wonderfully performed effort. I just don't know that it's in the top tier of Hitchcock's canon. Yet even lower-rung Hitchcock efforts are unerringly brilliant (and better than about 95% of other thrillers). So Dial M For Murder could be exactly what the doctor ordered in the hot house days of summer: a finely-balanced ballet in which a murderous man dances his way out of being caught, while others pirouette around him, attempting to discern the truth.

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